I arrived at Taipei airport at 4:30 in the morning by Eva Air. I imagined I would be totally exhausted after 14 plus hour of flight from Toronto... but, not. Eva Air Elite class seats are so spacious and service is nice, that I felt rather refreshed than exhausted. Just a few hundred dollars more than other carriers, it’s totally worth it. I picked up my rented mobile wifi rooter, took high-speed train down to the southern city of Chiayi, where situated right by the highly prized high mountain tea producing region of Arishan.
Though it’s the other side of the island, as I was able to make an appointment to see a tea expert at one of the regional tea research institute in Taitung where Honey black tea come from, I checked out my car at 10ish, spent nearly 1 hour with the car rental guy with my broken Chinese, his broken English and Japanese, and exchange of gesture and written Chinese characters, I managed to have him set the GPS the way I can use. Sharing the same characters certainly helped in this case. We are both looking at the same character pronouncing them totally differently....
Taiwan is incredibly high-tech. I was warned and worried that some tollbooth only takes some new pay system, no cash or credit card. It turned out, every rental car has registered chip sort of thing, and I actually think its RFI that the tool booth can read while driving. Actually the whole time I was on the highway, there was no tool booth to stop for, and occasionally I spotted a sensor like thing set up like an overpass. I was told that the toll will be recorded and the rental company will calculate to settle when I return the car. It’s kind of a surrealistic experience when I see the metropolitan city filled with scooters used as a family vehicle.
In any case, on August 21 at around 3pm, I arrived at the tea institute where I was supposed to show up on the 22nd. Wi-Fi yet to be charged, I had no help from google translate or copy of email to show... people at the institute was totally confused, this certainly looks like one of them, not being able to speak their language, but insisting I meet someone who I did not remember the name, or did not know how to explain my mission. Yet, these people were so generously patient, that finally found some young researcher who speaks English. Although I was to come on the next day, they offered to do some tea tasting as I showed the samples I brought for them to taste. Head of the institute even came out at the end, and quite taken by the bold and gun ho approach of my visiting all the way from Canada, he offered another session of the tea tasting the next day. As I did not have time or way to arrange hotel to stay in the area, I asked them to introduce one that is reasonable and safe. They sure did find a nice bed and breakfast type of accommodation run by a tea maker. Worried that the place is off the GPS map capacity, the boss assigned the youngest researcher to lead me to the location and explain to the innkeeper to keep me for a few nights. I managed to fill out the form, and tell her that I was hungry. She told me to wait. So I waited... 1 hour later, she had her son drove me to their neighbor’s house and sat me for dinner with them at the family dinner table. This was another tea maker who had blight big storefront selling ready-made tea and all. And the communal looking dining room was just next to it. Large round table with huge lazy Suzan in the middle, which was covered with food, sits in the middle. Old black leather couches to sit around this table and pick that food. They gave me a fresh bowl of steamed white rice with a pair of chopsticks, sat me and motioned “eat, eat, eat....”, so I did. Delicious stewed bacon, sweet, spicy and sour sautéed mustard greens, chicken soup, greens, onion and eggs, baked passion fruits, pineapple, and, the head of the house brought out huge chunk of pig chest to neck, and had his wife cut out the big juicy slice for me, the guest, that was just incredible. I was just a neighbor’s unexpected guest, but, they treated me with such a respect, I had no word. And, food was just very flavorful only to assured me that teas cultivated, nurtured and processed by these people have to be good, no doubt.
Tea plants in this mountainous yet tropical area are planted right next to the date tree orchard, pineapple farm or papaya farm. All the sweet and fragrant tropical fruits! This region produces sweetest and most fragrant Oolong and black tea. I tasted without knowing the details of the teas from this region, I picked up there is one strain of aroma and flavor consistently present in all high grade teas from this region. It’s the “zhong” they said, so I asked what is “zhong”? They told me it’s the taste of the insects that eats and damages the tea buds. Tea pickers picks what’s left of insects feasting, all torn damaged leaves. But, this injury induces the most sweet and seducing aroma and flavor. The result is the high mountain red Oolong and honey black tea. They are hand picked and of those injured by insects, so very little is processed. The aroma and its sweet taste of honey in tea are just out of the world. I purchased the one won the gold prize in the region, from the vender introduced by the tea institute.
Every tea venders had a tasting set up at their storefront space. Usually wife is in charge of sales. I visited 2 tea venders in the region famous for this honey black tea, called Rui Sui in Hualien prefecture, just north of Taitung, central part of the Pacific Ocean side of Taiwan. Surrounded by mountain and river in the tropical area, I was told, Japanese planted coffee plant first in the region 70 years ago. Taiwanese tea farmers started moving into this area about 40-50 years ago. Tea plants are lined with banana plants or date trees often. So exotic!
What a nice way to spend my day!! Talking to tea maker or tea farmer, they ask, what kind of tea you? Dark or light? Black or green? What color? I way both are good, then they go back to their stock and bring out the tea leaves to show off, I go “wow” then they brew that one, and convince me to buy yet another tea from their collection. I made so many new acquaintances with my enthusiasm.
Ignorance is bliss sometime.... On the 2nd session the tea institute organized for me, I tasted 20 teas including 4-prize winner, and other unique ones. And they sneaked in one experimental one, what they consider not respectable, easy to make and not worthy of formal merchandising..... It just caught my nose, eyes and taste bud, immediately asked what it was. The head of the institute came with his head shaking in despise and confusion... tried to lecture me how the tea is not worthy of even tasting, and such tea has such a characteristics of all “not to have” for the competition. Dark in color, oily surface, smoky sweet straightforward taste, no layers of complex sweet aroma or flavor. But I insisted that I simply liked it... Students who are taught how to recognize how this tea is to be kicked out of the competition the second it enters the table, yet wanted to see for themselves again, someone may possibly consider as desirable??? In confusion and curiosity. My ignorance was quite refreshing to those Taiwanese tea academics, that the head of the institute commanded his students to pack several of those top quality teas I tasted as well as the one they despise where I like for me to take home.
Yet another incredible day with tea enthusiast.